Thursday, October 2, 2008

NY Times: "This is what a credit crisis looks like"

The NY Times has a report with some detail about the days and weeks and events and psychology that led to the making of the Paulson Plan. The whole article is here.

As Credit Crisis Spiraled, Alarm Led to Action


Published: October 1, 2008

Panic can cause a prudent person to do rational things that can contribute to the failure of an institution.” — William A. Ackman of the hedge fund Pershing Square Capital Management.

It was early on Wednesday, Sept. 17, when executives at Pershing Square, Bill Ackman’s hedge fund, began getting nervous calls and e-mail messages from investors. Mr. Ackman, 42, has been a top Wall Street player for 15 years, making his clients — and himself — billions of dollars.

But now, Mr. Ackman and his colleagues were taken aback by what they were hearing. His big investors were worried about all of the Pershing assets held by Goldman Sachs, the blue-chip investment bank, whose stock had come under siege.

Never mind that Goldman kept Pershing’s assets in a segregated account, and that the money was safe. And never mind that Mr. Ackman believed Goldman was the world’s best-run investment bank and would come through the credit crisis unscathed.

Pershing investors still feared their money might be exposed. Mr. Ackman advised Goldman executives to do something to restore confidence — such as getting an infusion of capital from Warren E. Buffett, the billionaire investor. And while Mr. Ackman kept his assets at Goldman, he hurriedly set up accounts at three other institutions — just in case things got much worse.

Pershing had more faith than most. Up and down Wall Street, hedge funds with billions of dollars at Goldman and Morgan Stanley, another storied investment bank, were frantically pulling money out and looking for safer havens.

Panic was spreading on two of the scariest days ever in financial markets, and the biggest investors — not small investors — were panicking the most. Nobody was sure how much damage it would cause before it ended.

This is what a credit crisis looks like. It’s not like a stock market crisis, where the scary plunge of stocks is obvious to all. The credit crisis has played out in places most people can’t see. It’s banks refusing to lend to other banks — even though that is one of the most essential functions of the banking system. It’s a loss of confidence in seemingly healthy institutions like Morgan Stanley and Goldman — both of which reported profits even as the pressure was mounting. It is panicked hedge funds pulling out cash. It is frightened investors protecting themselves by buying credit-default swaps — a financial insurance policy against potential bankruptcy — at prices 30 times what they normally would pay.

It was this 36-hour period two weeks ago — from the morning of Wednesday, Sept. 17, to the afternoon of Thursday, Sept. 18 — that spooked policy makers by opening fissures in the worldwide financial system.

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